ORE SPACE TO CHASE THREES
For the 2019-20 season, the NCAA moved the men’s basketball three-point line farther back to the international distance of 22-feet and 1.75 inches.
The initial focus from the public and media settled upon what effect the farther distance will have on offenses that rely on three-point shooting, i.e., will it decrease three-point attempts and three-point shots made?
However, there is strong evidence that a defensive result was most intended by the NCAA Rules Committee when it approved the new 3-point distance.
The committee cited the following rationale for extending the line:
- Making the lane more available for dribble/drive plays from the perimeter.
- Slowing the trend of the 3-point shot becoming too prevalent in men’s college basketball by making the shot a bit more challenging, while at the same time keeping the shot an integral part of the game.
- Assisting in offensive spacing by requiring the defense to cover more of the court.
EFENSE AFTER THYBULLE
Last season, Washington’s three-point defense was average.
Despite the presence of Matisse Thybulle, an all-time great college defender, the Huskies 3-point percentage defense ranked 116th in the country as their opponents made 33.4% of their 3-point attempts.
The Huskies defense allowed opponents to generate 29.7% of their total offense from beyond the arc, which ranked Washington 257th in this category.
Although Thybulle adapted to the zone defense like a fish to water, the majority of his teammates were recruited to Washington by Lorenzo Romar and certainly not with the Syracuse zone in mind.
Yet during the 2018-19 season, the Huskies only allowed their opponents to attempt an average of 19.1 three-point shots per game — a pretty stingy number.
The low number of three-point attempts last season is probably a reflection of Matisse Thybulle’s super-human ability to singlehandedly cover the entire top of the zone from wing to wing.
Thybulle’s 132 blocks and 227 steals over two seasons in Hopkins’ defense is proof his presence discouraged or negated opponents’ 3-point shot attempts.
So can the Huskies reasonably expect to defend the three-point line as well without (a)Thybulle at the top of the zone and (b) with a wider area to cover?
If Coach Hopkins continues to play the Syracuse zone exclusively, he is essentially betting that his defense will be better without Thybulle.
In theory, Mike Hopkins is gambling that with both longer and more athletic players on this year’s active roster — i.e., 6’9″ Isaiah Stewart, 6’9″ Jaden McDaniels, 7’0″ Bryan Penn-Johnson, 6’10” Nate Roberts, 7’0″ Sam Timmons (and 7’4″ Riley Sorn) — more Huskies defenders will contest three-point shots, thereby forcing Huskies’ opponents to take more low percentage threes or take less threess overall.
It is not a bad theory that the loss of Thybulle’s genius defensive play can be mitigated with more capable defenders.
However, the effect of this season’s added variable of a deeper three-point-line that creates more space to defend cannot be dismissed or known until the games are played.
Regardless, the fact remains the Huskies will go into the 2019-2020 season with inexperienced defenders expected to cover more ground to contest three-point shots than the first two seasons under Hopkins.
ESSONS FROM SYRACUSE?
Since Syracuse and Washington are the only two programs commited to their version of the 2-3 zone, perhaps Syracuse basketball can shed some light on Washington’s defensive dilemna.
Last season, Syracuse allowed the 7th most three-point shots per game (26.2) and their three-point shooting percentage allowed was 32.9% which ranked 87th in the nation.
Thus, Washington allowed significantly less threes per game than Syracuse (19.1).
But Syracuse — without the benefit of their own Matisse Thybulle-type defender — had a lower three-point shooting percentage allowed than the Huskies did with Thybulle (33.4%).
Yet many Syracuse observers considered last season a subpar defensive performance and pointed to the team’s inability to play man-to-man defense when their 2-3 zone’s perimeter defense was compromised.
Syracuse fizzled out of the NCAA Tournament because Baylor rained 16-for-34 (47%) three-point shooting on their heads. SU didn’t have a man-to-man escape valve. Frank Howard’s absence, as the vocal zone organizer, undermined the perimeter defense.
Maybe this is why there has been rumblings that Syracuse coaching legend Jim Boeheim is going to commit to playing zone 15-20 minutes per game this season.
Facing similar circumstances, it certainly seems Washington, like Syracuse, must at least consider the flexibility of playing situational man defense in addition to their 2-3 zone.
AN UP OR WHAT?
The new farther three-point distance put a bullseye on Mike Hopkins and his exclusive use of the 2-3 “Syracuse zone” defense at Washington.
Washington experimented with man defense on its preseason exhibition tour in August, but Coach Hop has teased the idea of man defense in the past and has not delivered.
Expect the Huskies to continue their man-to-man defense experiment in early 2019 nonconference play.
But it is doubtful that Washington will make any significant commitment to man defense in 2019-20.
With so many inexperienced players on the roster, Coach Hopkins’ primary defensive concern is his players mastering the 2-3 zone.
Even if this season’s extended three-point line exposes defensive vulnerabilities in Washington’s zone, it is nearly impossible to foresee Coach Hopkins doing anything other than instinctively double down on the zone defense he knows (and loves) from his time as a player and coach at Syracuse.
Regardless of defensive scheme, the ultimate question will be, can another player fill the defensive leadership vacancy created by Matisse Thybulle’s departure?
Only time will tell, but defense will definitely determine the Huskies’ success this season.
And Coach Hop wouldn’t have it any other way.